The buffalo was literally life to thousands of Plains Indians,
providing the very basic elements of survival: food, shelter
and clothing. The hide alone had multiple uses: calfskin provided
soft swaddling for newborn babies; the large, tough hides of
fullgrown animals sewn together--often as a communal effort
by the woman--made a tipi for an entire family.
The hide also provided the soles of moccasins, parfleches (bags),
robes and thongs.
The thickly padded neck pelt was used to make shields, a single
hide a bull boat. The paunch was a useful cookpot; the sinews
became thread. The bones were utilized as tools: they made handy
scrapers, knives and awls. Tied together with rawhide, the ribs
made convenient sleds. Winter hides, with their heavy fur,
provided both shelter and warmth. The fur itself could be
used to stuff cradleboards and pillows, or it could be woven
into rope. And this was all in addition to the bountiful meat the
Not all uses of the buffalo were strictly utilitarian. Bone game
dice, buckskin dolls, and toys made of horn were all common. Ornaments
were created using buffalo hair, the animal's tail often appeared
as a lodge decoration, and the buffalo beard embellished both clothing
and weapons. Both horns and hair went into the making of headdresses.
Medicine men used the first of the animal's four stomach chambers to
combat frostbite and skin diseases, the bladder became a medicine bag,
and the tail a medicine switch.
Rare yellow and albino hides were highly valued and often worn during
rituals. Buffalo hooves and scrota would be made into rattles, and
rawhide drums and drumsticks were also made for ceremonial purposes.
Among tha Sioux, Assiniboines, and Pawnees, the skull was used in
prayer and in major ceremonies, including rituals designed to entice
the buffalo herds to return and give of themselves again.
An Ottawa holy man, conveyed to the Indians around
Michilmackinac a message from the Great Spirit.
You complain that the animals of the forest are few and scattered.
How should it be otherwise? You destroy them yourselves for their
skins only and leave their bodies to rot or give the best pieces
to the Whites. I am displeased when I see this, and take them back
to the Earth that they may not come to you again. You must kill no
more animals than are necessary to feed and clothe you.
Artwork by Sam Silverhawk